Revelation 2:1-7 (continued)
The letter to the Christians of Ephesus was discussed in the previous note, along with a summary of the basic format used in each of the seven letters. Today, we will be looking at the elements and details which are distinct to the first letter, found in the main address (vv. 2-6) and the concluding exhortation (v. 7b).
The “works” (e&rga) of the Ephesian believers which are praised by Jesus are characterized as: (a) sharp pain (ko/po$) from work/labor, etc, and (b) endurance (lit. “remaining under”, u(pomonh/). Both terms indicate a degree of suffering on behalf of Jesus Christ (and the word of God, etc). This is repeated, with a bit of wordplay, in verse 3:
“…and you hold (yourself) remaining under [i.e. with endurance], and have borne/carried (this) through my name and you have not been pained [kekopi/ake$] (by it).”
Their suffering and enduring is “through the name” of Jesus—that is, for his sake. The nature (and cause) of this suffering is explained in verse 2:
“you are not able to bear bad (men), and (indeed) you tested the (one)s counting themselves (as) ones sent forth [i.e. apostles], but are not, and found them (to be) false”
The issue here involves persons claiming to be apostles. For early believers, before there was a set of Christian Scriptures at hand in every congregation, authoritative instruction, etc, was done by local teachers and prophets, as well as by missionaries and other traveling ministers. The latter proved especially problematic for many of the early congregations. At a time when all communication had to be done by personal visits and letters delivered by messengers, it could be difficult to validate the claims (and pedigree/legitimacy, etc) of traveling ministers. The work known as the Didache (late-1st/early-2nd century?) offers some practical guidance on how to handle this (chaps. 11-13). A different approach is taken in the Letters of John, where the Spirit is the main source of teaching. The conflict in 1 and 2 John is related primarily to specific views regarding the person and work of Jesus. The “spirits” of ministers (i.e. by which they speak) are to be tested against the voice of the Spirit which corresponds to established truth/belief regarding Jesus (1 Jn 2:18-24; 4:1-6; 2 Jn 7-11; cf. also 5:6-10). In particular, 2 Jn 8-11 warns congregations against taking in ministers who hold this ‘false’ view of Jesus, persons characterized as “antichrist” (1 Jn 2:18; 2 Jn 7). Paul, too, in his letters, struggles against ‘opponents’ who are regarded as apostles, or who consider themselves to be apostles (esp. in 2 Cor 10-13 [11:13; 12:12]).
Here the text declares that the Ephesian believers tested certain would-be apostles. We do not know precisely what was involved in this “testing”, but presumably it occurred over a period of time, and would seem to have involved considerable challenge and difficulty for the congregations in the city. Nor do we really have any knowledge as to what these would-be apostles taught or said, other than their claim to be apostles. It is possible that they may be connected with the Nikolaitans (cf. below). The only detail we have in the text is that the Ephesian Christians “found them to be false [yeudh/$]”. We can assume this means that the believers in Ephesus (most of them, at any rate), ultimately did not accept the claims and teachings of these ministers.
If the Ephesian churches proved to sound in doctrine (i.e. testing the claims/teachings of ‘false’ apostles), the mark against them involves their love. This seems to reflect the two-fold “commandment”, or duty of believers, which defines (true) Christian identity—(1) trust in Jesus Christ, and (2) love for one another—and which is a distinctive emphasis in the Johannine writings (1 Jn 3:23-24, etc). Here it is stated regarding the believers in Ephesus:
“you (have) left [a)fh/ke$] your love th(at you had at) first”
The expression h( a)ga/ph sou h( prw/th may be translated “your first love”, but is better understood as “the love you had at first”. Within the Johannine tradition, love is defined primarily as sacrificial love expressed on behalf of fellow believers, following the example of Jesus (Jn 13:1, 34-35; 15:12-13ff, etc). This may entail specific acts of care and provision (1 Jn 3:16-18), but ultimately must be understood in the broader sense of our unity with one another in Christ (1 Jn 2:7-10; 3:10-11ff, 23-24; 4:20-21; 5:1-3). Division and sectarian interest disrupts this unity and is effectively a sign of a lack of love (1 Jn 2:19; 4:3-6ff). It is not entirely clear, however, whether (or to what extent) the statement in Rev 2:4 reflects this line of tradition. If it does refer to a lack of proper love being shown to other believers (in whatever way this is manifested), it is treated as a most serious flaw or sin, as the warning in verse 5 makes clear:
“You must remember, then, from where you have fallen and change (your) mind(set) [i.e. repent] and do (again) the words (you did at) first; but if not, (then) I (will) come to you and move your lamp(stand) out of its place, if you (do) not change (your) mind(set).”
How should we understand the threat of the Ephesian’s lampstand being moved (vb. kine/w)? There are several possibilities:
- That the believers in Ephesus would suffer some severe disruption or disaster (perhaps as the result of a loss of Angelic protection?)
- The congregations in Ephesus (the leading city of Roman Asia) would suffer a loss of status
- The congregations would be broken up and reconstituted in some manner (i.e. ‘moved’ to a different place)
It does not say that Ephesus would lose its lampstand, only that it would be moved “out of its place”. The seriousness of the warning could entail eschatological consequences, but this is not spelled out clearly.
Verse 6 shifts from blame/rebuke back to praise:
“But you hold this (in your favor): you hate the works of the Nikolaitans, which I also hate.”
It is not clear whether the Nikolaitans are related to the ‘false’ apostles (cf. above), but the parallelism between verses 2-3 and 6 makes this a distinct possibility. In point of fact, however, we have very little reliable information about the Nikolaitans, other than a presumed association with someone named Nikolaos (Nikolao$, “victor[ious] over the people”). They appear to have been influential, to some extent, among Christians in Asia Minor, since they are mentioned again in v. 15 (and will be discussed further there). The information provided by writers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1.26.3; Hippolytus Refutation of Heresies 7.24; Clement Stromata 2.20; 3.4; Tertullian Prescription Against Heretics 33; Eusebius Church History 3.29.1) varies considerably, and cannot be relied upon. The combination of vv. 2-3 and 6, however, certainly indicates that believers in Ephesus (and Asia Minor) faced the challenges of differing (heterodox) sources of authority and belief. The practical impact of such challenges, in terms of showing hospitality, etc, to traveling ministers, is clearly indicated in 2 Jn 7-11 and 3 Jn 5-10ff, where the issue is seen from two distinct sides of the coin.
In the final exhortation, which, according to the formula in the letters, includes the promise of heavenly reward, we read:
“To the (one) being victorious, I will give to him to eat out of the Tree of Life, which is in the Paradise of God.”
Though the opening words are found in all seven letters, there may be a bit of wordplay here:
- The Nikolaitans, according to the meaning of the name, are “victorious [ni=ko$] over the people”
- The promise of reward is given to those who “are victorious” (vb. nika/w), i.e. over the Nikolaitans and other sources of evil and testing, etc.
The promise is eschatological, referring to the divine/heavenly reward that the righteous (believers) will receive at the end-time, following death and/or the final Judgment. The motif of the “tree of life” (cu/lon th=$ zwh=$), and of eating from it, of course, goes back to the traditions in the Creation narrative (Gen 2:9; 3:22ff). Here it represents the Eternal Life which believers possess, in the sense of traditional (future) eschatology, rather than that of the present (‘realized’ eschatology). The image appears again in the final scenes of the book (chap. 22 [vv. 2, 14, 19]). The Greek para/deiso$, transliterated in English as Paradise, is itself a transliterated (Persian) loanword, referring primarily to an enclosed park or garden. From the standpoint of Jewish (eschatological) thought, it refers back to ancient traditions of the “garden of God” (Gen 2-3; 13:10; Ezek 28:13ff; 31:8-9), which, in turn, have many parallels in ancient Near Eastern mythology and religious language. In the New Testament, it is a term for the heavenly realm of God (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor 12:4) to which the righteous have access (after death).